Jandek and Me
He’s a cult hero to deejays and record collectors, but he won’t talk to the press–or at least he wouldn’t, until I found him in Houston. I think.
ALTHOUGH JANDEK HAS PUT OUT 27 original recordings since 1978—more than Prince, Bruce Springsteen, or countless other stars—he isn’t a household name. But he’s definitely famous in certain circles. He was picked by Spin magazine as one of the ten “most interesting” musicians of the late eighties and name-dropped by Kurt Cobain, and record collectors have cradled his albums in their arms for years. Adding to his cultish status is the fact that he’s a J. D. Salinger-style recluse: All that’s known about him is that he probably lives in Houston. But this spring I found the person I believe is Jandek, and to my amazement, he invited me to go out for a beer.
He’s not what you’d call an ordinary guy, though given his creative output—one of the most unusual bodies of work in recent memory—it would have been surprising if he hadn’t shown flashes of eccentricity. There has been, on average, one full-length Jandek (pronounced Jan-deck) release every year since 1981. Each album or CD cover is illustrated with a grainy photo depicting either a house with the curtains drawn, furniture, or the same tidy, expressionless, fair-featured young man. The back covers are white with black type listing nothing but the title, the song list, and an address: P.O. Box 15375, Houston, TX, 77220. If you line up all the records side by side, the uniformity of their design is enough to give you a headache.
And that’s before you hear the music. You cannot play air guitar to Jandek, and you can’t snap your fingers or sing along. It sounds like his guitar strings are horribly out of tune, yet he strums away as if nothing is wrong. His songs typically last for two to four minutes. His guitar playing—if you can call it that—usually consists of his repeating two chords over and over. He begins by singing in a high voice, holding notes for long periods, and sometimes slides down the scale, reciting dark, deeply personal lyrics so close to the microphone that it’s impossible to imagine him performing. It’s more like he has crawled in between your ears and sat down for a pow-wow.
If you think these oddball characteristics have endeared him to the hipster set, think again; the number of people who consider him a genius could fit in a sedan. But even though most listeners would agree that his records are amateurish, there is something appealing about him. Maybe it lies in the stark, desolate picture of the world he paints in his lyrics, or maybe it’s his level of inaccessibility, which is almost unheard of—even for an underground musician. His records have no liner notes, he doesn’t perform live, and he has never made a video. He doesn’t grant interviews, has never been professionally photographed, and refuses to communicate with the public. All this secrecy gives rise to fascinating theories: that the name of Jandek’s record label—Corwood Industries—somehow incorporates his real surname, that he’s a mental patient, that he works in a Houston record-pressing plant, that his father works in a record-pressing plant, that it’s all a practical joke.
“Jandek’s not pretentious, but only pretentious people like his music,” Cobain told Spin in 1993. If so, there are close to one hundred pretentious people out there, since that’s the number of Jandek’s fans on an e-mail list kept by Seth Tisue, a Northwestern University graduate student. “You have to have a tolerance for really strange-sounding music,” says Tisue, who hosts a Jandek Web site. “I mean, not just strange sounding but almost amateur sounding. His guitar is out of tune, and he can’t sing. People who like Jandek also appreciate the whole loner mystique.” Some diehards try to find similarities between Jandek’s albums and those by other artists, most of them almost as obscure: the solo release by Moby Grape’s Alexander “Skip” Spence, for instance, or the recordings of sixties proto-punk rockers the Godz. Yet Jandek seems to have conceived his music in creative isolation, almost willing his CDs to be filed in the bin marked “other” at your local record store—that is, if your local record store carried them, which it doesn’t. His work is sold only through the mail, though I bet the staff at the post office doesn’t have to check Box 15375 that often.
Part of Jandek’s peculiar charm is that he prefers to sell his albums in bulk. Early in his career, selected fans were occasionally mailed boxes of 50 LPs and asked to give them away. People who wrote to Corwood Industries received a catalog of dirt-cheap releases: In the eighties you could get a box of 25 for $50, though now that the label has switched to CDs and no longer carries anything from before 1994, you get 20 for $80. A line at the bottom of the current catalog states that you can buy 1,000 copies wholesale for $3,000 (by comparison, the out-of-print LPs can sell for as much as $40 each). In the old days copies were also mailed to college and co-op radio stations, which became Jandek’s window to the world. He wasn’t always played with urgency, but if a station manager was courteous enough to at least keep his albums on the shelf and not turn them into Frisbees, a new group of deejays would rediscover him every few years.
Only a few fans have had phone contact with Corwood Industries, but they all report the same thing: There’s something strange about the man or men involved. Some have been lucky enough to reach Jandek’s representative, Sterling Smith, who nervously and politely says as little as possible. One of the first deejays to give Jandek airplay and open the lines of communication was Irwin Chusid of the alternative station WFMU in East Orange, New Jersey. According to his forthcoming book, Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (A Cappella Books), Chusid sent a letter to the post office box in 1980 stating, “I’ve concluded [this] is one of the most frightening albums I’ve ever heard.” Someone claiming to be a representative of Corwood Industries replied with a rambling phone call in which he said that Jandek had sold only two copies of the record, that he had written seven novels but burned the manuscripts after they were rejected by New York publishers, and that he’d recorded enough material for ten albums and hoped to release them all.
Though Chusid’s conversations were brief—he had several more just like the first—they were long and enlightening compared with other fans’ tales of phoned and written responses. Certainly they were enlightening compared with mine. The first time I tried to contact Corwood Industries I got the number from the phone book. When I called, I got an answering machine, but instead of leaving a message, I decided to write a letter, which I figured would be less intrusive. Two weeks after mailing it, I hadn’t received a response, so I broke down and called again, only to find the machine had been disconnected. I began feeling that I might as well have written to the North Pole requesting Christmas gifts. Finally, after a month and a half, I got a call from a man claiming to be Chris Puccio of Houston Records, a family-owned record-manufacturing plant. Though Puccio was friendly and professional, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Jandek record-plant rumors, and as he talked, I grew more and more skeptical of his identity. I asked him a few questions, but he wanted to talk business and figure out what happened to an order I had placed for twenty Jandek CDs. During the conversation we discovered that the CDs had been mailed to my old address. There was silence, and then Puccio said with a chuckle, “Wow, they’re in for a surprise.”
Puccio, my instincts told me, was not Jandek, and I didn’t get the sense that he was related to him either. But after I hung up the phone and reflected on the call, I was struck by how bizarre it was. He wouldn’t say anything about his client except, “There are only a few independent artists we’ll do this for.” Another dead end. I decided to go to Houston.
Looking for Jandek wasn’t easy. I don’t recommend it. It required me to go on what seemed like an endless series of wild-goose chases, all in the hope of finding someone who didn’t want to be found. Then again, my perseverance paid off. After a couple of weeks of research—both on the phone and in various offices where public records are on file—I developed various leads, but none panned out. After all but exhausting my list of possibilities, I rang one final doorbell in one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods. When I heard the garage door open, I walked back to the driveway and approached a man who looked like a late-thirties version of the youth on the record covers. He was neatly dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt with beautiful cufflinks, black pants, a black tie, and black shoes. I introduced myself and asked him if he knew anything about Corwood Industries. He paused for a long time, then said, “What do you want to know?” I asked if Corwood Industries was involved in projects other than Jandek records. He said yes but he couldn’t tell me anything about them. I asked if Jandek ever intended to be a cult figure. He said he wasn’t comfortable with the question.
After a heavy sigh he pulled his jaw to the side, looking amused, and asked how I knew about Jandek. I told him I saw a row of his records in an Appleton, Wisconsin, radio station seven years ago. (He told me later that I had earned his trust with that anecdote since he had been to Appleton and knew that there were Jandek records at the local college station.) When I asked if he could tell me anything about Jandek, he started to appear upset. I said that I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable, but it was too late. There was an awkward silence as he stared at the ground. His shirt was now soaked with sweat—presumably from the heat, though it might have been the questions. Suddenly he looked up and asked, “Do you drink beer?”
He didn’t want there to be any physical evidence of our meeting. He wouldn’t draw me a map to our destination, he wouldn’t let me tape-record him, and at his request I cannot reveal his name, occupation, address, or phone number. But I have no doubt he is indeed the person who makes the music, even if it was hard to imagine this affluent-looking, well-groomed man writing such lyrics as “You can put your bloody mind in a paper bag and eat it for lunch,” or “Don’t wanna be clanky but here comes Janky.”
I followed him to a parking lot and walked a few blocks with him to an upscale bar—I’m duty-bound not to say which bar—where he introduced me to three friends dressed just as he was. Since he didn’t tell them where I worked or why I was with him, they winked and nudged at each other as we made our way to the back patio.
Except for a few animated moments, he remained solemn, choosing his words carefully, speaking slowly, and ending his sentences with a concentrated gaze. Though he was hesitant to discuss Jandek, he was more than willing to talk at length about food, gardening, and allergies. A nagging voice in the back of my mind kept saying, “Great, now I can tell the world Jandek’s opinion on the milk-allergy connection.” Eventually, however, he gave me more information than I had ever expected to get.
The people who attended clubs, he told me, were more interested in a musician’s image than music. Bands didn’t interest him, and though he didn’t say so, I got the impression that he wasn’t the type of person who would run to a record store and snatch up CDs. When I told him Jandek’s music sounded as if it were cultivated in a hothouse, his eyes lit up. “That’s exactly the word I would have chosen,” he said.
Like a well-traveled businessman, he had visited big and small cities all over the U.S., Mexico, and Europe. He once even made a trip to a North Texas town because he heard nobody there had cavities. When my college, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, came up in conversation, he said he had been there and that it rained the whole time. Maybe he had forgotten that Jandek once recorded a song called “Rain in Madison.” Maybe he was intentionally leaving me a clue.
While he doesn’t watch TV and never surfs the Web, he frequently goes out to see movies. He enjoys discussing films and had recently seen The Matrix. I asked him if he liked it. He thought for a while, then said that he did. It turns out that he had studied philosophy in college, so the movie’s concept of a reality you can choose to accept (by taking a red pill) or ignore (by taking a blue pill) appealed to him. “Sometimes I feel like I took the blue pill,” he said wryly, explaining that his white-collar career was becoming “of increasing disinterest” to him. He said he had enthusiasm for it but wished that he could spend more time with creative pursuits. He couldn’t, he said, for fear that inventive energy would bring destruction—the whole “candle that burns brightest burns out fastest” scenario.
Unlike most musicians, who are concerned about profit, fame, and critical acclaim, he seemed content that Jandek’s recordings were merely out there. Reviews don’t faze him, though he liked one critic’s description of the music as “pentatonic refractive dissonance.” “That’s something you can use,” he said.
“Okay,” I replied. “So do you want people to ‘get it’?”
“There’s nothing to get,” he said.
Our conversation was coming to a close. The entire time, I had referred to Jandek in the third person—not because I doubted I was talking to him, but as a nod to his discomfort. Still, I was confused when he told me quite frantically that he wasn’t important to Jandek or Corwood Industries. Was this more philosophy? Was he just panicking? Had he convinced himself that he was only Jandek while he was recording? He wanted me to understand but wouldn’t address the issue directly. He had obviously thought about the difference between himself and his alter ego and agonized over its logic. This was what he came up with to clarify his point: “You’re a journalist, but you grow snap beans.”
We finished a second round of beers. I tried several times to pay the bill, but he said I had come all this way to talk to him and that I should spend the money on gasoline. He walked me to my car and said good-bye, stressing that even though he had had a nice time, he didn’t want to be contacted in person by a fan or a journalist or anybody about Jandek ever again. I said that I understood. Then we both drove away.